Next-Generation Veterans Vie for Congress

But will they fight for Europe?

Martha McSally, the Republican candidate in the Senate race in Arizona, touts her past as a fighter pilot to ridicule her Democratic opponent: “While we were in harm’s way in uniform [serving in Iraq], Kyrsten Sinema was protesting us in a pink tutu,” she declares in one attack ad. The side-by-side picture of a protesting Democrat in a pink ballerina gown and a fighting Republican in full combat gear sends a powerful, though slightly archaic, message.

However, this year’s veteran candidates are about more than just patriotic displays. A more substantial change is happening in U.S. politics. In dozens of races, a new generation of veterans is vying for seats in Congress. Shaped by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they bring a new perspective to Congress. This is not the old, male, Cold War generation that represents the majority of the eighty veterans that currently sit in the House. It is not the clash between East and the West, but rather 9/11 and the War on Terror in the Middle East that define their view on the U.S. military’s role in the world.

Democrats especially are betting on next-generation veterans in their efforts to win back the House. Two weeks before the midterms, the New York Times lists around seventy highly competitive House races. In eighteen of these races, a former member of the military or former security official is running for the Democrats. Fourteen of these Democratic contenders have served either in Iraq or Afghanistan. Notably, seven of them are women.

Veterans often are a restraining force when it comes to U.S. military interventions.

What do next-generation veterans stand for? While some of the militaristic display in the election campaign might suggest otherwise, veterans often are a restraining force when it comes to U.S. military interventions. Having been in battle themselves, veterans have seen the cost and cruelty of military interventions. Research on Congress’ votes on post-9/11 military operations revealed that veterans are more likely to vote for a reduction in troop deployments and for more Congressional oversight.

The Democratic candidates in particular underline the need for Congress to play its role as a check and balance on the Commander in Chief. Dan Feehan is fighting a tight race to keep the House seat in Minnesota’s first district for his party after the Democratic incumbent entered the race for Governorship.  After two combat tours as an active duty soldier in Iraq between 2005 and 2009 he now wants “to hold the President accountable as Commander-in-Chief” and “ensure that we only place our service members into harm’s way when it is absolutely necessary.”

For him, accountability also includes keeping the ballooning U.S. military budget under control. This notion is shared by his Democratic colleague Amy McGrath, who is contesting a Republican-held seat in Kentucky. As a combat pilot, she flew missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Responding to a critical question on the defense budget, she defends the U.S. global security role but warns of military adventures: “We have to pay for the wars that we already went to. The biggest thing going forward […] is that we have to elect leaders that don’t get us into unnecessary wars.”

At present, three out of four veterans in the House are Republicans. It is not a surprise that Republican veterans are less outspoken in their criticism of the president. For example, Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher, who won a House seat in 2016, supports the tough line of the president in the Middle East, notably the decision to leave the Iran deal. However, an appetite to reduce the U.S. involvement in foreign wars also exists in the GOP. Eddie Edwards, running in New Hampshire, warns that the U.S. should “be very careful about committing American troops to battle.”

Some observers in Washington hope that an increased number of veterans might ease the partisan gridlock that has weakened Congress’ ability to place a check on the president. Research suggests that veterans, driven by a common sense of duty to serve the country, are more willing than other representatives to reach across the aisle. An increase of cross-partisanship is also the goal of a new political organization “With Honor,” which is supporting next-generation veterans across the country. It lists thirty-nine next-generation veterans that pledged to work regularly with members of the other party.

While many of the next-generation veterans are eager to shake-up the party establishment, their impact on Congress, let alone on U.S. foreign policy, will take time. It is not the first time that Congress will welcome fresh veteran faces. While the overall number of veterans in Congress is steadily declining, the share of young veterans has increased in every election since 2006. Some of them, such as Democrat MJ Hegar, a former helicopter pilot running in a tough race in a deep-red district in Texas, do not even focus on national security. Her campaign received national recognition because of a viral ad that draws attention to women’s rights and accomplishments.

Two years into the Trump presidency, European partners are searching for signs about the U.S. direction. Is President Trump’s “America First” policy just a passing aberration, or a culmination of a larger fatigue in the U.S. public with its country’s global leadership role? The next-generation veterans running for office are a promising place to look for answers.

Compared to the Cold War generation, their engagement on transatlantic security is more restrained.

On both sides of the aisle, next-generation veterans oppose President Trump’s treatment of NATO allies. However, compared to the Cold War generation, their engagement on transatlantic security is more restrained. As many of them experienced the heavy burden that the U.S. lifted in Iraq and Afghanistan, they may be more inclined to call on Europeans to bear their share of the burden in Europe’s neighborhood. These midterms indicate once more that the debate in the U.S. on its global role is shifting. Europeans should be prepared to muster greater resources to meet their defense commitments.


Supported by the DAAD with funds from the Federal Foreign Office (FF).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Niklas Helwig

Niklas Helwig is a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow in October and November 2018. Prior to his research stay at the AICGS, he was a Transatlantic Post-Doc Fellow for International Relations and Security (TAPIR fellow). He was based at the RAND Corporation and the Center for Transatlantic Relations in DC, as well as at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. Between 2014 and 2016. he worked as Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki. Dr. Helwig was also a Visiting Researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. He researched and taught at the University of Cologne and the University of Edinburgh, from where he received a double PhD (‘co-tutelle’). Dr. Helwig was a Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher in the Initial Training Network on EU external action (EXACT).

Dr. Helwig’s research interests include Germany’s foreign and security policy, European defense cooperation, transatlantic security cooperation, as well as the EU as a Global Actor. He wrote extensively for think tanks, online blogs, and academic journals, including European Foreign Affairs Review, The International Spectator, Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, Huffington Post, EurActiv, and War on the Rocks.

During his time at the AICGS, Dr. Helwig analyzes U.S. domestic perception of the transatlantic alliance during the 2018 midterm elections. Lately, the U.S. administration emphasized a transactional perspective on the relationship with its allies. Historically, however, it can be argued that the transatlantic alliance was about more than economic prosperity and mutual defense, and instead based on a broader societal belief in shared values and identity. By analyzing the debates around midterm races across the U.S., the project aims to shed light on the question whether this notion still holds true in today’s America.

Additionally, he was a 2017-2018 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).